Senator Rice Senate Speech on Intersex Day. It is a day for us to reflect on the issues faced by people across the world with intersex variations and to recognise the important work being done by the intersex support groups, including Organisation Intersex International Australia. This week we celebrated the defeat of the divisive and unnecessary marriage equality plebiscite as a win for common sense, justice and equality. But marriage equality is just one discrimination that is being faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians. There are many other challenges to human rights that LGBTIQ Australians face here.
‘Intersex’ is the often overlooked letter I in the LGBTI acronym, and it tends to be far less understood and discussed than the L, G, B and T. While the broader community’s understanding and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals is growing, many Australian still do not understand what it means to be intersex and the kinds of issues and challenges faced by intersex people.
Anyone who watched the Rio Olympics this year would have followed the story of South African athlete Caster Semenya, who competed in the women’s 800-metre race. We do not know if Caster is intersex. All the media stories about her are speculation or based on unverified and unverifiable leaked information. The race was the subject of intense media scrutiny, but not for the reasons that might usually lead up to a competitive race. Despite Semenya competing with the body that she was born with—as a woman, which is how she identifies and how she was assigned at birth—Semenya was the subject of humiliating coverage centring on her biological features.
Beyond the sporting arena, coverage of the sensitive and complex issues faced by people with intersex status is scarce, and the lived experiences of intersex people in relation to discrimination are only now being properly documented. Intersex people are born with sex characteristics, such as genitals or chromosome patterns, that do not fit typical definitions of male and female. ‘Intersex’ is an umbrella term used for describing a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth, while in others they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations might not be physically apparent at all.
Being intersex is not about sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. It is a question of biological variation, and people with intersex variation have the same diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities as those in the broader community. About 1.7 per cent of the population is estimated to be intersex, which is about the same percentage as redheads, who make up one to two per cent of the population. So, if you have met a redhead, you have almost certainly met an intersex person as well.
The Interface Project was founded in 2012, and it recently shared the story of a man called Jim Ambrose who was born in 1976 with what he terms ‘genitals that frightened my parents and caregivers’. With one Y chromosome, one X chromosome and ambiguous genitalia, the doctors decided it would be easier to eliminate tissue than to add tissue, so they surgically removed the organ and it was decided that the baby would be raised as a girl, named Kristi. Ambrose only discovered at the age of 18, when he obtained his medical records, what had happened. He had been sterilised at birth and had never been told.
Sadly, stories like Jim Ambrose’s are all too familiar in the Australian context. Involuntary surgery commonly occurs with parental consent shortly after birth, on the advice of doctors. The question asked tends to be: ‘What gender should we assign to the newborn baby and how can we surgically reinforce that assignment?’ Instead, we should be questioning whether to invasively and irreversibly perform the surgery at all. While doctors and parents are undoubtably motivated by their belief that they are acting in the best interests of the child by its conforming to a fixed gender classification, premature medical intervention has potential lifetime ramifications on the mental health of intersex individuals and threatens to compromise the individual’s rights to bodily autonomy, integrity and dignity.
In raising children today most of us pride ourselves on moving away from old-fashioned gender stereotypes. We encourage our girls to play football, to learn maths and physics and to aspire to be Prime Minister and we allow space for our boys to be sensitive and to play with dolls. We agree that gender norms are mostly social constructs and embrace the idiosyncratic differences exhibited by more feminine males and more masculine females. Yet even still we are reluctant to believe that bodies likewise do not conform to strict binaries. Intersex people are not trying to make a point on this score. They are not trying to push the boundaries of social behaviour by acting more feminine or masculine. They were simply born with bodies that do not correspond with society’s norms for male or female bodies.
So how can we explain to these children that for some illogical reason certain beliefs and taboos dissolve slower than others? How can we tell them that our constant striving for what is normal means that we are willing to harm and maim our children simply because they are born differently? Jim Ambrose speaks to parents, doctors, teachers and all of society in his videos when he says, ‘Your comfort level is less important in the grand scheme of things than your kids’ right to choose for themselves their life path, what they want to do with their own body.’ Watching Ambrose’s videos is heartbreaking. Bodies should not be stigmatised, and the rights of people with intersex variations must be upheld. These individuals deserve bodily integrity, including personal consent to medical or surgical interventions, and in the case of children medical intervention should wherever possible be deferred until the child is able to give full and informed consent.
While equality and freedom from discrimination are fundamental rights that belong to all people irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or physical sex characteristics, the reality is that there are inadequate federal laws that specifically prohibit discrimination on these grounds. Our laws are weaker here than they are for race discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination or age discrimination. On international Intersex Solidarity Day we should not be debating conservative ideologues and their obsession with watering down our racial hate laws; we should be talking about how we can strengthen the human rights protections of our intersex children, family and friends.
In concluding I would like to share a quote from Bonnie Hart, who is the President of the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group Australia. They say: ‘If you know an intersex person, they are a survivor and a warrior of a battle you may not even know is happening. The battleground is the mind—our own and the social collective. Stigma is the weapon, the blunt object that others bludgeon us with and that we often turn onto ourselves. The white flag is awareness. The only truce is that of self-love, mutual respect and the banishment of ignorance.’
While intersex people may often be the overlooked ‘I’ in ‘LGBTIQ’, the Greens are going to continue to fight to ensure that the medical, legal and public policy frameworks affecting people with intersex variations are made in consultation with intersex people and that we prioritise a human rights based agenda for reform.
Chamber Senate o Item ADJOURNMENT – Intersex Day of Solidarity Speaker: Rice, Sen Janet Transcript used for news reporting